Palestinian Elections in the Post-Trump Middle East
Sixteen years after Mahmoud Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority and 15 years after pro-Hamas candidates swept the Palestinian legislative elections, new elections are finally within reach in Palestine. The last hurdle was resolved when Hamas agreed to consecutive rather than simultaneous elections. As a result, and within the next six months, Palestinians will first choose members of their legislative council, followed by a national unity government, and then, presidential elections. A reformed Palestine Liberation Organization will also emerge at the end of this process as well.
Locally, the pandemic has added to the exhaustion of unrecognized Hamas militants running the Gaza Strip and barely managing to stay afloat financially due in large part to cash infusions from Qatar and other sources. Israel’s decade-and-a-half blockade has also had its results, leaving Gaza and Gazans in the worst shape they have ever been in.
Politically, there is no more reason for the Palestinian division; both leading factions (Hamas and Fatah) agree on the major issues regarding the Palestinian future and ways to reach it. They accept the need for an independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders and they support popular struggle rather than violent resistance as the means to reach Palestinian independence.
There is no single party that is responsible for this change, but certainly, the overall mood in the Middle East has changed since the election of Joe Biden to the US presidency in November. The Gulf crisis between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates has been resolved. Air and land routes to Qatar have been opened. Turkey has sent its ambassador back to Tel Aviv and is trying to mend its relations with Israel. The defeat of US President Donald Trump also means that Iran and the internationally approved nuclear agreement will most likely be restored soon, thus pushing Iran closer to a moderate rather than radical posture.
The attempts by Islamic radicals, including Hamas, to claim that they are the only party that can stand up to Israel and the Americans, have been shattered. Abbas’ three-year boycott of the world’s most powerful country has changed people’s opinion of this Palestinian leader. Abbas did not suddenly become radical; he still abhors the rockets of Hamas militants in Gaza and has not given up on a negotiated settlement. Even the short-lived suspension of security coordination in protest of the planned Israeli annexation has now been reversed. And despite the short-term protests of Hamas leaders, they have returned to reconciliation talks with a written message to Abbas agreeing to all demands.
Elections will certainly bring new blood to Palestinian politics, but for the time being, they are unlikely to change the senior leadership. One of the reasons that Hamas conceded on consecutive rather than simultaneous elections was an internal decision not to challenge Abbas for the presidency.
The 85-year-old Palestinian leader might win the coming elections but the countdown for a post-Abbas contest has already started. The current leader most likely to fill his shoes has been Jibril Rajoub, the Fatah strongman who is credited for the efforts to bring Hamas on board. If elections and reconciliation are implemented without any major obstacles, he will emerge as the next leader of the Palestinian people. Rajoub, who spent 19 years in an Israeli jail and is fluent in Hebrew, has strong local roots. He heads the popular Palestinian Football Association and has good relations on all levels, including with imprisoned leader Marwan Barghouti and the exiled renegade leader, Mohammad Dahlan.
Palestinian elections are long overdue, but no matter who will lead, the Israeli occupation will continue to be the hardest nut to crack. A unified international position is needed to ensure that the new Palestinian leaders will be able to force Israel to end its decadeslong occupation and allow for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.